Baltimore City Council committee unanimously backs $2,500 tax credit for law enforcement

A Baltimore City Council committee unanimously backed legislation Thursday that would provide $2,500 in tax credits to law enforcement officers who choose to live in Baltimore.

The legislation — designed to lure more police, firefighters and sheriff’s deputies to the city — now advances to the full City Council for a vote. The committee amended the bill to automatically expire after 10 years.

“This is a great tool to get more police officers in the city,” said Councilman Eric T. Costello, lead sponsor of the legislation. “It’s about making sure they’re invested in the city. It’s a great tool for recruitment and retention.”

Costello, along with council members Sharon Green Middleton, Leon F. Pinkett III and Robert Stokes Sr., voted for the bill. Councilman Edward Reisinger left the meeting before the vote.

Before voting in favor of the bill, members of the council’s Taxation, Finance and Economic Development Committee reviewed numbers from the city’s Finance Department that underscored the problem the bill seeks to address.

Of nearly 3,000 Baltimore Police Department employees, fewer than 500 live in the city, the research showed. Of more than 1,400 Fire Department employees, fewer than 300 live in Baltimore.

Seeing these numbers, City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young — a sponsor of the tax credit bill — reacted angrily, and asked the city Law Department to consider legislation forcing police officers to live in Baltimore.

“We need to figure out how we can force them to live in the city. This is madness,” Young said. “They have the nerve to vote to not sign the contract? They’re raping the city.”

Afterwards, Young said he regretted a “poor choice of words,” but stood by his point that so many officers living outside of Baltimore is bad for city finances.

Taxpayer-funded salaries, pensions and worker’s compensation payments are bolstering the budgets of the suburbs and even other states, instead of the city, which often faces budget deficits, he argued.

Gene Ryan, the president of the Baltimore police union, called Young’s remarks “an outrageous, flippant comment.”

“How in the world can he compare an officer who puts their life on the line to a rapist?” Ryan said. “How in the world does he have the gall to say that? These officers, no matter where they live, put their lives on the line every day. People forget we’re the only thing stopping this city from falling into chaos.”

Ryan said there are many reasons some officers choose not to live in Baltimore, including preferring public schools in surrounding counties and wanting to avoid people they’ve arrested or investigated.

“The No. 1 complaint I get is the school system,” Ryan said.

He said he believed the tax credits could encourage more officers to want to move in.

“We want our officers to be part of the community,” Ryan said. “The stress between the community and the police officers is they just don’t get a chance to get to know each other. We need some more interaction. Giving the police offices the incentive to move in is obviously a positive thing.”

The Finance Department said the tax credits could cost between $1.1 million and $2.2 million annually in lost tax revenue.

Several prominent Baltimore groups hailed the committee’s vote.

The pro-business Greater Baltimore Committee argued that enticing more police to live in Baltimore could improve relationships with the community and increase public safety.

“Incentivizing police officers and other public safety professionals to live in the communities where they work is a good step forward and could go a long way toward fixing the damaged relationship that exists,” said Donald C. Fry, president of the GBC.

Annie Milli, director of Live Baltimore, said her organization has long tried to entice more officers to live in Baltimore.

“This property tax credit will round out a package of incentives for our first responders, also including the $5,000 down payment and closing-cost program already available through the city,” she said. “This credit is really about removing barriers to residency for public safety officers. It reduces officers' abilities to say 'why not' and gives them another reason to consider our neighborhoods.”

The measure has the backing of Mayor Catherine Pugh, who as a state senator sponsored 2016 state legislation that authorized the city to offer the tax credit.

The property tax rate in Baltimore is more than twice that in some surrounding counties, making even similarly priced houses much more expensive to own.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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